What is Public Art?

A public artwork is an artwork in any medium, planned and executed outside a gallery context and intended specifically for exhibition within public space.

Public spaces are generally open and accessible to all. They can be indoors – such as foyers, atriums, airports or shopping centres – or outdoors – such as forecourts, parks, squares, freeways or plazas.

There are many types of Public Art:


Charles Summers, Burke and Wills, bronze, granite, 1865. Courtesy The City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection.

Permanent public artworks are intended stay in position for long periods – sometimes centuries. Two common examples are statues and sculptures. Because they are intended to last, artists create these works from highly durable materials like bronze, marble, granite, steel and basalt (bluestone). The oldest piece of public art in Melbourne is the Burke and Wills Monument by Charles Summers, which has been on display since 1865. Surprisingly, given its size (eight metres tall and three metres across)  and weight, it has been moved to different locations in the city no less than five times.


Nicholas Selenitsch Linemarking, site-specific chalk drawing, Central Frankston as part of White Street Project, 2009. Nicholas Selenitsch is represented in Australia by Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. Courtesy of the artist and Sutton Gallery Melbourne.

Temporary public artwork has a predetermined lifetime that can range anywhere between a few hours to several years. Examples can include installations, projections and performances created for public space. The materials and techniques artists use are diverse and can include plants, paper, chalk, video, sound and performance. Another useful synonym for temporary is ephemeral. Nick Selenitsch’s series of artworks titled Linemarking 2009-12 are an example of temporary public art making. These drawings were made in several outdoor public locations throughout the city of Frankston, and after a few weeks completely washed away. Today they exist only as photographic documentation.

Stand Alone

Susan Hewitt & Penelope Lee, The Great Petition, steel, bluestone, 2008. Commissioned by the Victorian government through Arts Victoria, the Community Support Fund and the Office of Women’s Policy in collaboration with the City of Melbourne, 2008. Courtesy the artists and The City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection.

Stand-alone artworks are defined by being three-dimensional and independent of other structures, such a buildings. One grand example is The Great Petition 2008 by artists Susan Hewitt and Penelope Lee. Its form is derived from the original Women’s Suffrage Petition of 1891, which resulted in women gaining the right to vote in Victoria in 1908. When it was was submitted to parliament in 1891 the petition bore the signatures of 30,000 women and was 260 metres long, earning it the nickname ‘The Monster Petition’.

Site-specific Installation

Julia Davis, Headspace (Lake Brown), natural lake salt, 2010. Courtesy the artist.

A site-specific installation describes a situation when the artwork and the site are equally important and each informs the other. Like a conversation, which needs at least two people, the elements in a site-specific installation are in dialogue with one another, as each gains meaning from the other in a reciprocal relationship. Julia Davis’ site-specific installation Headspace (Lake Brown) 2010 was completed by the artist as part of Art Out of Place, a creative residency program commissioned by Spaced, in rural Western Australia. Davis was commissioned to create an artwork that related to either the location or local community, and she responded by gathering salt from a local salt lake that she then used to cast a bust of her head and upper torso. This sculptural self portrait was then placed back into the salt lake, which gradually eroded the artwork and reclaimed the salt. Headspace (Lake Brown) poetically merged the artist’s identity and the local landscape. Both elements – the lake and the sculpture – were equally integral to the artwork.


Ray Thomas, Another View Site 17, bronze, 1995. Courtesy the artist and The City of Melbourne Heritage and Art Collection.

An integrated artwork is one that is incorporated into another structure – such as a building, streetscape or landscape design. Typical examples of integrated public artworks include street paving, sculptural seating, and artist-designed glazing (windows). Another View Site 17 1995 by Ray Thomas, a Gunnai artist, is made in bronze that is integrated into the bluestone paving of Collins Street, in Melbourne. It represents the Koorie creation story of the Karak Gurok (Seven Sisters) who were the daughters of Bunjil, the Eagle man, and Gunawarra, the Black Swan woman. The seven figures each represent one of the seven colours of the rainbow. This artwork is one of a series which make up the ‘Another View Indigenous Walking Trail’ that guides visitors through Melbourne’s CBD to sites of Indigenous historical significance. By integrating his artwork directly into the footpath Thomas’ artwork encourages the viewer to consider the ground on which they stand as having both Indigenous and colonial histories, and to reconsider metaphorical stability of that foundation.


Rose Nolan, It’s okay to be alright Melbourne Art Tram, 2013. Commissioned by Yarra Trams and Melbourne Festival. Courtesy the artist and Anna Schwartz Gallery. Photograph: Adam Chandler.

An applied public artwork is one that is applied directly to the surface, indoors or outdoors, of another structure, and is almost always two-dimensional. Common examples of applied artwork include murals on buildings, chalk drawing on footpaths, legal ‘street art’, and illegal graffiti. The Melbourne Art Trams are a more unusual example of applied public art. Artists are invited to propose ideas for an artwork specifically tailored to feature on the exterior surface of a Melbourne tram. This example is by artist Rose Nolan, who chose to create a text-based composition that wrapped all the way around the tram to form the sentence ‘It’s okay to be alright’. Nolan’s artwork acted like a public broadcast, reassuring all viewers that to be average, good enough or ordinary in life is fine and ‘okay’.

Nolan has said about the artwork, “The sense of circularity and rhythm from the space of being ‘okay’ to the space of being ‘alright’ and back again replicates, in some way, the movement and rhythm of this tram as it winds its way across the city.”

Performance Based

Public Movement, Training Ground, 2015. Commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artists. Photograph: Zan Wimberley

Performance-based public artworks can include dance, theatre, music and other live actions in public space. Because performance-based artworks involve live performers they are always temporary. These artworks are often devised in response to the unique features of a public space, and these responses can be expressed using: choreography (for dancers), direction (for actors), or musical scores (for sound). For the off-site exhibition program ACCA In The City in 2015, Israeli performance group Public Movement choreographed the performance Training Ground for six contemporary dancers. Conceived in response to the public space of the Melbourne City Square, Training Ground referenced Australian Rules Football, and took inspiration from AFL players training drills. The performance was advertised to take place at set times each day, but commenced without warning and was not signposted, meaning that passersby who were not aware of the performance were surprised by what appeared to be a strange, spontaneous ritual, right in the heart of the city.

Large or Small Scale

Tracey Emin, The Distance of Your Heart, bronze, 2014. Courtesy the artist and The City of Sydney.

Most public artworks, new and old, tend to be large scale. This is because in most public contexts artists must account for the expansive scale of the space – open parks, tall buildings and large trees can all visually dwarf artworks placed in their vicinity. By making a work large-scale this effect can be counteracted. A useful synonym for large-scale is monumental. However, many contemporary artists are interested in exploring small-scale artwork in public space. One reason for this is that the encounter with a small-scale artwork can be an intimate experience for the viewer. By contrast, an encounter with a monumental artwork can be an overwhelming or alienating experience.

For her public artwork The Distance of Your Heart 2018 English artist Tracey Emin installed over 60 small-scale bronze birds along Macquarie Place, in Sydney. Emin’s life-size sculptures are perched like real birds above doors, on public seating, and  buildings. The scale of her sculptures, which are small enough to be held in the hand, bring the viewer’s attention to the quiet, intimate details of their environment in a way that a large-scale artwork would not.


Ron Robertson-Swann, Vault, steel, paint, 1980. 615 x 1184 x 1003cm. Commissioned by the City of Melbourne,  City of Melbourne Art and Heritage Collection. Photographer unknown.

Static is another word for still, so a static artwork is one that does not move or change. Two commonly found types of static public artworks are murals painted onto walls, or statues carved from marble or cast in bronze. Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault 1980, which is located just outside ACCA, is a prominent example of a static sculpture as public artwork.


Phil Price, Tree of Life, aluminium, internal mechanism, 2010. Courtesy the artist and McClelland Sculpture Park.

A kinetic artwork is one that moves in some way. One prominent example of a kinetic artwork is Tree of Life 2010 by sculptor Phil Price. The ‘arms’ on this sculpture are carefully engineered to catch even the gentlest air currents and rotate in a convincingly organic motion. Because real trees move and sway in the wind, Price’s choice of subject matter is an apt choice for a kinetic sculpture, as the artwork’s movement evokes the movement of an actual tree. This sculpture was originally commissioned for the Peninsula Link Freeway in Melbourne, and is now located in the McClelland Sculpture Park.

Sound Based

Sonia Leber and David Chesworth, We, The Masters, 2011. Vinyl, 2 channel audio, up to 14 speakers, digital player, cabling, control gear, size variable approx. 7m x 40m. Commissioned by the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art. Courtesy the artists.

Sound can form a component of a public artwork, such as in a performance alongside dance, or an artwork might be exclusively sonic. Some examples of the ways in which sound can be used in public artwork are as a broadcast, soundscape, voice, or musical performance.

For their contribution to the ACCA in the City 2011 public art program, collaborative artists Sonia Leber and David Chesworth recorded hundreds of people calling and talking to their pets in public parks around Melbourne. These soundbites were then mixed into a soundtrack and broadcast into the space of the Melbourne City Square. The work called out to passers-by with unexpected beckoning, coaxing and controlling commands, highlighting a type of communication that is all around us in public space, yet usually goes unremarked.


Nick Azidis, Untitled, 2017. Commissioned by the Gertrude Street Projection Festival, courtesy the artist.

Examples of digital public artworks include video played on an outdoor screen, or computer-generated imagery (CGI) projected directly onto the surface of a building. Some artists specialise in using a CGI technique called light mapping, which allows light projections to be tailored to the architectural features of a particular building. The annual Gertrude Street Projection Festival (GSPF) in Melbourne is dedicated to digital projection artworks in public space. This example, by artist Nick Azidis, convincingly transforms the exterior of this high-rise block of flats by giving it a surface of antique illustrations at a great scale.

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